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Anthony Quayle

EIGHT HOURS FROM ENGLAND . . . Between the covers

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Anthony-Quayle-848x1024-848x1024To many of us who grew up in the 1950s Anthony Quayle was to become one of a celebrated group of theatrical knights, along with Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Redgrave. Until recently I had no idea that he was also wrote two novels based on his experiences in WW2. The first of these, Eight Hours From England was first published in 1945 and is the fourth and final reprint in the impressive series from the Imperial War Museum.

Major John Overton, stoically unlucky in love, combines a rather self-sacrificial gesture with a genuine desire to be at ‘the sharp end’ of the war. He chases up casual acquaintances working in the chaotic bureaucracy of London military administration and, rather randomly, finds himself sent out to Albania in the final days of December 1943. The chaotic country – ruled until 1939 by the improbably-named King Zog – had then been annexed by Mussolini’s Italy but after Italy’s surrender to the Allies in the autumn of 1943, German forces had moved in and had a tenuous grip of the country.

The brief of Britain’s SOE – the Special Operations Executive – was to fan the flames of behind-the-lines resistance in occupied countries. Admirer’s of Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy will recall that in Unconditional Surrender Guy Crouchback is sent to co-ordinate similar activities in nearby Yugoslavia but, like Crouchback, Overton finds that the situation on the ground is far from straightforward. On the one hand are the Communist partisans, but on the other are the Balli Kombëtar, a fiercely nationalist group who hate the Communists just as much as they hate the Nazis.

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New Year’s day 1944 brings little physical comfort to Overton, but he is determined to make a difference and, above all, wants to take the war to the Germans. In the following weeks and months he meets unexpected obstacles, chief among them being the Albanians themselves. Their character baffles him. He remarks, ruefully.

“The misfortunes of others were the only jokes at which Albanians laughed, the height of comedy being when another man was killed.”

His courage, tenacity and sheer physical resilience are immense, but are sorely tried. Overton’s private thoughts are never far from England:

“I stayed a while longer looking out over the grey Adriatic where in the distance, the island of Corfu was dimly visible between the rain squalls. It was an afternoon on which to recall the hissing of logs in the hearth of an English home and the sound of the muffin-man’s bell in the street outside.”

EHFE coverOf the three classic reprints which feature overseas action Eight Hours From England is the bleakest by far. The books by Alexander Baron and David Piper bear solemn witness to the deaths of brave men, sometimes heroic but often simply tragic: the irony is that Overton and his men do not, as far as I can recall, actually fire a shot in anger. No Germans are killed as a result of their efforts; the Allied cause is not advanced by the tiniest fraction; their heartbreaking struggle is not against the swastika and all it stands for, but against a brutally inhospitable terrain, bitter weather and, above all, the distrust, treachery and embedded criminality of many of the Albanians they encounter.

Overton survives, after a fashion, but is close to physical and spiritual breakdown. The heartache which prompted his original gesture is not eased, and the method of his dismissal by the young woman provides a cruel final metaphor:

“I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out what I thought was my handkerchief. But it was not: it was Ann’s letter. The blue writing paper had gone pulpy; the writing had smeared and wriggled across the page. Not a word was now legible.”

Quite early in the book, when Overton reaches Albania to replace the badly wounded former senior officer, the sick man makes a prophetic statement as he is stretchered aboard the boat to take him to safety:

“For a moment Keith did not speak and I thought he had not heard me, then the lips moved and he said slowly, and very clearly:
‘I wish you joy of the damned place.’”

Click on the covers below to read my reviews of the other three IWM classic reprints.

PUTC cover

City Plough cover

Trial cover

THE WARTIME POSTMAN DELIVERS . . .

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In September 2019, to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, IWM will launch a wonderful new series with four novels from their archives all set during the Second World War – Imperial War Museums Wartime Classics.

Originally published to considerable acclaim, these titles were written either during or just after the Second World War and are currently out of print. Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience and takes the reader right into the heart of the conflict. They all capture the awful absurdity of war and the trauma and chaos of battle as well as some of the fierce loyalties and black humour that can emerge in extraordinary circumstances. Living through a time of great upheaval, as we are today, each wartime story brings the reality of war alive in a vivid and profoundly moving way and is a timely reminder of what the previous generations experienced.

Alan Jeffreys, (Senior Curator, Second World War, Imperial War Museums) searched the IWM library collection to come up with these four launch titles, all of which deserve a new and wider audience.   He has written an introduction to each novel that sets them in context and gives the wider historical background and says:

Researching the Wartime Classics has been one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on in my years at IWM. It’s been very exciting rediscovering these fantastic novels and helping to bring them to the wider readership they so deserve”.

Each story reflects the IWM remit to tell the stories of those who experienced conflict first hand. Each author has a fascinating back story. These are Second World War novels about the truth of war written by those who were actually there.

FROM THE CITY, FROM THE PLOUGH by Alexander Baron

baronThis is a vivid and moving account of preparations for D- Day and the advance into Normandy. Published in the 75th anniversary year of the D-Day landings, this is based on the author’s first-hand experience of D-Day and has been described by Antony Beevor  as:

“u
ndoubtedly one of the very greatest British novels of the Second World War.”

Alexander Baron was a widely acclaimed author and screenwriter and his London novels have a wide following. This was his first novel.

TRIAL BY BATTLE by David Piper

PiperThis quietly shattering and searingly authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare in Malaya was described by William Boyd as:

A tremendous rediscovery of a brilliant novel. Extremely well-written, its effects are both sophisticated and visceral.”

VS Naipaul described the novel as:

“one of the most absorbing and painful books about jungle warfare that I have read”

David Piper was best known as director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The novel is based on his time serving with the Indian Army in Malaya where he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years as a POW. His son, Tom Piper, was the designer of the hugely successful Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War Centenary.

EIGHT HOURS FROM ENGLAND by Anthony Quayle

Anthony-Quayle-848x1024-848x1024Anthony Quayle was a renowned Shakespearean actor, director and film star and this is his candid account of SOE operations in occupied Europe. Historian and journalist Andrew Roberts said:

As well as being one of our greatest actors, Anthony Quayle was an intrepid war hero and his autobiographical novel is one of the greatest adventure stories of the Second World War. Beautifully written and full of pathos and authenticity, it brings alive the terrible moral decisions that have to be taken by soldiers under unimaginable pressures in wartime.”

PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER by Kathleen Hewitt

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThis murder mystery about opportunism and the black market is set against the backdrop of London during the Blitz.

‘With a dead body on the first page and a debonair RAF pilot as the sleuth, this stylish whodunit takes you straight back to Blitzed London and murder most foul. Several plausible suspects, a femme fatale, witty dialogue, memorable scenes and unexpected twists – it boasts everything a great whodunit should have, and more.

Kathleen Hewitt was a British author and playwright who wrote more than 20 novels in her lifetime. She was part of an artistic set in 1930’s London which included Olga Lehman and the poet Roy Campbell.


A full review of each novel will appear on the Fully Booked site in September.

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